Ethical considerations for consumers and marketers in a digital landscape

Don’t you know? Talking about a revolution sounds like a whisper. Tracy Chapman is an extraordinary musician, though listening to this song recently, I wonder whether she could have conceived that her very words could also be used to describe a revolution of a digital kind, where our data is silently being harvested and sold, until one day we find, it’s too late.

This week I will be discussing ethics in relation to digital marketing and our experience as consumers engaging with the internet. I know I’m not alone when I say I am both concerned about my data privacy and at the same time, am all too flippant about what I choose to share online (particularly when it comes to signing in to third party applications with my Facebook account). My brother (who has never had a social media account) and my partner (who refuses to use Google) were hardly surprised when Facebook was involved with Cambridge Analytica (potentially influencing the US election) as, if, yeah, of course, how could you not know something like that would happen? It shook me though, and I imagine a lot of others, who were comfortably living in a bubble of digital ease, never imagining that they could be the product, so easily manipulated.

But in a way, that’s the very issue – social media and digital connectivity is just so easy and over the course of the last 10-15 years, has completely penetrated our lives. All of my international friends use Facebook and it’s one of the easiest ways for us to keep in touch. One could argue too, that we chose this, that we as adults continually made (informed) decisions to give parts of ourselves to others (and it’s all there in the fine print). But what if those sharing their data online are children? It’s articles such as these, from the Sunshine Coast Daily that really do worry me. To summarise, 56 percent of children 8-13 are circumventing age restrictions and creating accounts with fake ages, meaning that they are not only potentially exposed to damaging content, but are sharing details of their lives from a very vulnerable age, which could in turn expose them to online predators or identify theft. If online predators are something you are interested in, I highly recommend you watch Catfish, which is a very weird but intriguing ‘documentary’, entirely relevant to the world we live in now.

To that end, Tim Berners-Lee’s vision for the internet – an open platform that allows anyone to share information, access opportunities and collaborate across geographic boundaries – seems to have come true, however there is also this parallel future unravelling, the world wide web is a juxtaposition of light and dark. As Berners-Lee states, ‘we are so used to these systems being manipulated that people just think that’s how the internet works. We need to think about what it should be like. One of the problems with climate change is getting people to realise it was anthropogenic – created by people. It’s the same problem with social networks – they are manmade. If they are not serving humanity, they can and should be changed.’

So where do marketers stand in all of this? Well, I would argue, on a very delicate line, between influence and manipulation. Market research has entered an entirely new territory with digitisation. No longer are researchers simply observing patrons in a café behind a carefully placed newspaper-disguise, but they are able to track eye movement across a website, analyse digital facial expressions and translate them into emotions with AI, use analytics tools to investigate online search behaviour (the real goldmine) and conduct sentiment analyses from social media and public forums. In further understanding the inner-workings of consumers’ minds, advertising can become increasingly targeted. Information is power.

Of course, targeted advertising in itself is a bit of an ethical conundrum. On the one hand, it could offer a timely reminder to purchase something you were genuinely interested in, but on the other, what if the person being targeted is in some way vulnerable (whether that be through mental illness, disability or age) or unable to control their impulses? An elderly person for instance, unaware of the implication of their actions (clicking buttons seems so easy and harmless) or a game-addicted teenager, using their parent’s credit card or all of their pocket money on in-game microtransactions? There really are almost too many ethical situations to explore and they are all equally disheartening. So is there anything we can do to save the internet?

Well, Jaron Lanier seems to think so. He suggests that because the internet began as a free platform, businesses such as Google and Facebook were ‘forced’ to go down the road of advertisement-generated revenue and that if we as consumers demanded (deleted our accounts), they could be ‘forced’ once again to change. That we have the power to drive ethical behaviour and accountability in terms of data protection and our right to privacy. Here’s hoping he’s right.

A wise lecturer of mine once said, ‘ethical behaviour is a privilege not all have’. How do you feel about behaving ethically as a marketer? Is ethics something you would consider when you start working in industry? Let me know your thoughts in the comments on the sidebar.

9 thoughts on “Ethical considerations for consumers and marketers in a digital landscape”

  1. Hi Hannah – Great post as always 🙂

    Taking up some big issues in this one, but I really like how I can feel that you are deeply interested/concerned with the current development of digital; the increasing availability of data, and seemingly decreasing control of who can collect it.

    One particular comparison struck me, namely the comparison between the environmental development, and the digital one as they are both manmade and should therefore be changed. Every time I find myself thinking about these topics, the ultimate thought which occupies my mind is “how”. I guess my question is then how do you think we can turn this development around? As marketeers or people in general. Hasn’t the train already left the station?

    Thanks for the read!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Has the train already left the station? Yes and no, I suppose. I cannot speak with any authority regarding the current digital development, though I do have hope since the internet is still very young in the whole scheme of things.

      As for climate change or environmental degradation, we as a species have done and continue to do horrible things to the planet. Even when you take one small part of it, such as plastic waste in our oceans and waterways, it’s so heartbreaking to see so the effects it has on marine life and their ecosystem. Like deforestation though, I do believe that if we really cared, we could repair the planet (there is a documentary called ‘Salt of the Earth’ where the person being interviewed, Sebastiao Salgado successfully restored his father’s forest, which gives me hope).

      Of course, any kind of environmental and digital repair is not a quick fix. It’s a long-term goal, requiring that everyone is wholly invested and on the same page. That’s extremely hard to do though as people are selfish (check out Scott Galloway’s TED Talk on Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon) and are first and foremost interested in their own family or friends rather than the world at large.

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  2. Hi Hannah – what a great read. Wasn’t Jaron Lanier’s thoughts just so fascinating! Ceasing to continue using Facebook, and in turn, stop supporting its bad practice seems an easy declaration to make. But is Facebook to engrained in our communication for us to stop?

    I truly hope my ethics can stay with me as I finish my time as a student and enter into the big world of marketing. What about yourself?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Madeleine! Thank you so much for leaving a comment and for taking the time to read my blog.

      I do wonder if Facebook is too ingrained in our communication, in a way it is for me, but to be honest, there are only a select few I actively contact there. I mostly use it for other networks, such as interest groups, accommodation or for this class – shame on Torgeir for forcing us to use a service that harvests our data. I believe that if a better option arose (just as accessible), I would move, just as I moved from MySpace to Facebook. Perhaps you are too young for those wild MySpace days though.

      I believe if you want, ethics can always be a part of your life. It’s a choice you make (provided you are able of course, though in most cases you are if you’re living in Australia, unless you are in survival mode). If you do want to work for an unethical workplace however, but still wish to uphold your moral values, I suggest reading ‘The most good you can do’ by Peter Singer. He discusses ways in which to do the most good – such as, maybe you’re working a high paying unethical job, but if you give to certain organisations, that money in those hands could be more ‘good’ than if you were working somewhere lower-paying but technically ethical. It just depends how you look at it. He’s also just a great person to read if ethics is something you are interested in further exploring.

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      1. I believe I have reached the same relationship with Facebook… maybe indeed it is time to move onto bigger and better things.

        But thank you for the recommendation, I will look forward to reading some of Singer’s work.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Awesome post, Hannah! You write wonderfully, and I always enjoy reading your posts 🙂 As a hopeful future marketer, I hope to stay as ethical as possible. I know personally that I am more likely to respond positively to a marketing message when I feel trust and respect has come from both sides!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Astrid! Thank you so much for your comment and for taking the time to read my post. I know everyone is super busy at the moment, so it really means a lot.

      I completely agree with you – trust is so important to us as consumers and is something marketers should work hard to deliver.

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  4. Hannah – as usual, really well written post. I am very interested in our ethical responsibility as marketers. In fact, I’m struggling with it right now as I leave uni – do I apply for big business? Do I work in not-for-profits? In our line of work, the line grows hazier as every day goes by, and it’s up to us not to cross it. I just hope that other people in our field think about it as much as we do (but I reckon they probably don’t).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey George! Thanks for taking the time to write a comment, I know how busy you are right now. Those are definitely big questions, and ones I struggle with as well. I dearly want to work towards the betterment of our country, however I must also acknowledge that the rent doesn’t get paid with good intentions.

      Having said that though, I was watching an old episode of Q&A last night with high school students and wow, was I impressed. One panellist in particular, Dylan Storer, was absolutely killing it with awareness, compassion and ethical thought. I wanted to audibly yell out ‘yes!’ to so many of the points raised. I think Penny Wong had tears in her eyes at one stage. I guess what I mean by this is, there may not be many marketers who hold ethical standards high now, but I do have faith that as new generations progress through the workplace, there will be.

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